Larry Kahaner

Helping at-work writers to become novelists

Archive for the category “writer’s block”

Writing Lessons from a Pulpster

By Larry Kahaner

I just read The Pulp Jungle, the autobiography of author Frank Gruber.

Who?terror by night.jpg

Unless, like me, you’re a fan of pulp authors, you might not know the name or any of his pseudonyms like Stephen Acre, Charles K. Boston and John K. Vedder.

Gruber died in 1969 at the age of 65 and during his lifetime he was one of the world’s most prolific writers. He wrote more than 300 short stories for over 40 magazines, more than  sixty novels, and over 200 screenplays and television scripts.

His books have sold over 90 million copies and translated into scores of languages.

During his prime, he wrote more than 800,000 words a year. He worked in the morning; he worked at night. He wrote on weekends. He typed away on a manual typewriter for most of it.

By his own admission, some of his work was excellent. Some of it less so. But still he wrote.

He was driven to succeed as a writer, which to him meant he made a decent living for him, his wife and son despite receiving rejection after rejection. He never gave up and submitted his work sometimes retyping stories if the manuscript became dirty or torn from the overhandling of editors who refused them.

He mainly lived in New York with other pulp writers who were his friends, people you may have heard of like L. Ron Hubbard (Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard), Max Brand, Carroll John Daly and Cornell Woolrich. Like them, he started out working for ¼ of a cent per word until he broke into the ‘big’ magazines like Argosy, Field & Stream, Black Mask and Thrilling Detective. They would live in tenements, shimmy around landlords to whom they owed back rent, and made meals of ‘tomato’ soup which they fashioned from automat ketchup, hot water and free crackers that were meant for customers actually buying soup.

In case you were wondering, the name pulp was taken from the cheap paper pulp used in these magazines. When your writing took off, you would work for the more expensive glossy paper magazines that the writers called “slicks.”

It was an age, during and after the great Depression, when publishing houses came and went, producing hundreds of monthly or weekly pulp magazines for a population for whom reading lurid and exciting tales was solid entertainment and an escape from the economic horrors around them.

Next came dime paperbacks and Gruber and his fellow ‘pulpsters,’ as they called themselves, toiled to fill pages of these paperbacks that were tucked into back pockets and purses. It was the beginning of publishing houses that you probably have heard of like Dell, Penguin and Farrar & Rinehart.

It was a rough life, living hand to mouth, but they enjoyed whatever money they made (they usually picked up their paychecks in person on Fridays) and would get together for parties that evening. There was no food, just gin and some lemonade or seltzer as mixers. Gruber tells the story of one party at the temporary apartment of writer George Bruce that brings home the idea of what it meant to be a pulp writer.

 

“It was a rather small apartment and thirty-something guests were jammed into the place so that you could hardly move around. About ten o’clock in the evening George announced that he had a deadline for a twelve-thousand word story the following morning and had to get at it. I assumed that it was a hint for the guests to leave, but such was not the case at all. George merely went to his desk in the one corner of the room and began to bang his electric typewriter. George sat at that typewriter for four solid hours, completely oblivious to the brawl going on around him. At two o’clock in the morning, he finished his twelve-thousand words and had a drink of gin.”

 

Gruber and his fellow writers went where the money was. He wrote Westerns when they were in vogue, detective stories when they were big and horror stories when readers couldn’t get enough of the genre. Gruber went to Hollywood on and off where he wrote scripts and later TV shows. You might know some of his novels or short stories, that that were turned into movies, his original screenplays or his early TV shows: Zane Grey Theater, Death Valley Days, 77 Sunset Strip, Dressed to Kill, Terror by Night, The Kansan, The French Key and Shotgun Slade.

Towards the end of his career, Gruber made a good living but it took years for him to get there. Now, along with many other writers of his era, he is enjoying a resurgence among readers.

For today’s writers, his career offers many lessons.

First, never give up. The pulpsters understood that to be successful in the long run, to actually make a living as a writer, they needed quantity and quality. Competition among writers was fierce and editors were picky. You had to deliver good product and lots of it.

Second, accept that writing is hard work. It’s physically hard on the body and the mind. It’s not easy to sit for hours on end when it’s much more fun to go out.

Third, learn to live with all of this plus the loneliness.

He writes: “Only a writer who has endured the writing of a dozen stories, of a hundred, of four hundred, understands the agony that went along with those countless hours of mental aberration.

“And only a writer who has endured all of it knows about the terrible loneliness.

“A writer is truly alone. He sits and thinks, works and reworks his ideas, his thoughts. And then he writes and rewrites. And while he is doing all of this, he is utterly alone.”

Takeaway: If you can’t be alone for long periods of time, seek another line of work.

Fourth, write what sells. I know that many writers want to write what they want to write. Fine, maybe you’ll get lucky, but writing is a business and the customer wants what the customer wants. It doesn’t mean to pander, but it does mean to fulfill a current need.

Fifth, and last, understand that your stories must be, as Gruber put it, “unusual.” Heroes must be colorful, different, unique. His series characters were certainly that. There was a crime-solving encyclopedia salesman named Oliver Quade, Shotgun Slade who was a wild West private eye and the private eye team of Otis Beagle and Joe Peel who alternated between being legit detectives and swindlers depending upon if they got caught in the act of larceny.

The same ‘unusual’ tag applies to backgrounds themes, motives and murder methods. “The streets of the big city are not necessarily, colorful. If they’re not, make them so,” he wrote in his 11-points that all mysteries must contain. On the Thrilling Detective website you will find Gruber’s 11-points taken from The Pulp Jungle.

Gruber never forgot what readers really want above everything else. They crave to be transported away from their lives to a more ‘unusual’ place than where they’re living now. It may sound obvious but it ain’t easy to do.

It requires imagination, hard work and guts to write ‘unusual.’

 

 

Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

Can I Write Novels Even if I Haven’t Had an Interesting Life?

By Larry Kahaner

I came across a blog from Guy Portman titled “10 Famous Authors’ Day Jobs” in which he lists… well… you get it.exciting life

What struck me most from reading Guy’s blog post is how many famous authors eventually gave up their day jobs (Natch. They’re famous.) and how many used what they knew from their day jobs and incorporated it into their writings.

Item: Joseph Conrad – (1857 – 1924) – Many of Joseph Conrad’s works have a nautical theme. This is not surprising considering that the author had a 19 year career in the merchant-marine, which began when he left his native Poland as a teenager in 1874.

Item: Arthur Conan Doyle – (1859 – 1930) – The creator of Sherlock Holmes was an important figure in the field of crime fiction. Doyle was also a practicing doctor, whose field of expertise was ophthalmology. He quit medicine to concentrate on writing full time.

Item: Agatha Christie – (1890 -1976) – It was during World War I that prolific author Agatha Christie began writing detective stories. At the time she was employed as an apothecary’s assistant. Her knowledge of poisons was to come in useful in her detective stories.

These authors used what they learned on the job and in life as a springboard for their stories.

But what if you don’t have an interesting job, career or life to draw upon?

There’s no such thing as a boring life.

There’s always something in your past and present that you can look to for ideas and stories. There’s always odd, interesting and compelling people in your life upon which to fashion your characters and stories. You just have to be open.

I have a writing buddy who is working on a memoir and some of the folks he talks about make for fascinating character fodder. At the time, they may not have seemed so interesting, especially to a kid, but when we get older we see their bizarreness and they become highly writeable.

But even if they don’t seem so interesting now. It’s okay.

Think of a person that you know and make him or her weirder, odder, funnier or sadder. Look for the peculiar detail that others have missed. Embellish the small but compelling parts. Expand their quirk. Exaggerate a tic.

One last thought. Here’s the entry for Bram Stoker: “Stoker is best remembered for his seminal work Dracula, but he also wrote 11 other novels and 3 collections of short stories. The author spent 27 years working as an acting manager and business manager for Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London.”

I haven’t read his other 11 novels but I can bet his job figured into these works. As for Dracula, Stoker’s inspiration reportedly came from a visit to Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire and a visit to the crypts of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin. My guess is that these creepy places produced a strong emotional reaction in Stoker which then formed the basis for his vampire novel. Another person, though, maybe not so much.

That’s the crux of it. What produces a strong emotion in you – a person, place or thing – is what you should be writing about.

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

How to Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat

By Larry Kahaner

I just finished reading a terrific book except for one thing. The ending was a cheat.

Every book must have one.

Every book must have one.

The author composed a quirky, clever main character with an animal sidekick that acts as a contract killer upon command. Very cool idea. The book moved fast, had an absorbing plot and the writing itself was workmanlike (one of my highest compliments) and even contained some flashes of wordsmithing brilliance.

But here’s the problem.

When I reached the end, the protagonist was left hanging in the middle of a predicament. Why? Because the author has a second book which he/she (I’m not giving you any more clues as to the writer’s identity) which takes up where the first book lets off.

Unfair.

As a reader, I deserve a satisfying and closing end to each book I read. If you want to have a second in a series, that’s great. If I like the first, I will most likely read the second and probably beyond, but I don’t want to be coerced or compelled by not having a real, honest-to-goodness ending to the first one.

I have many pals who write series, and they do it the right way. Each book stands on its own. This way, a new reader can dip into any book in the series and receive a satisfying experience without having to read the others. Trust me; if they like the book, they will read another one. Maybe the whole series. In fact, most readers are introduced to a series by the author’s most recently-published book, because that’s the one that publishers have hyped the most. This makes a complete, standalone experience even more crucial to a series’ success.

To write a successful series, an author has to insert enough backstory into each book so the new reader gets up to speed without boring those who already know the main characters. It’s actually not that difficult, but it does require some finesse.

Respect your audience; don’t cheat them out of an ending.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller “USA, Inc.” now available in eBook and paperback. All my books have a money-back guarantee.

 

 

 

 

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 2

Drugs: The Author’s Other Drug of Choice – Part 2

This guest blog from former workmate Gerry Karey, who blogs at Unhinged, grew out of a blog I wrote about alcohol and authors titled Don’t Drink and Write.

When I posted the blog on my Facebook page, Gerry commented:

“What about pot?”

To which I answered: “What about it?”

He took the challenge and looked at famous authors and their drug proclivities.

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.  — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

thomspons

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me. – Hunter S. Thompson

That’s quite a picnic hamper. Mescaline, acid, cocaine, uppers, downers, screamers and laughers, oh, my.  If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there.

Thompson was one of several mid-twentieth century writers who celebrated the use of drugs, particularly hallucinogens, and inspired and influenced a cultural movement.

Thompson is credited as the father of Gonzo journalism, a blend of fact and fiction. He may have captured the gestalt of the era as well as any writer. You just couldn’t believe everything you read, but it was an exhilarating, crazy ride.

A 2005 biography is entitled, Hunter S. Thompson: An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance. Thomas somehow managed to live until he was 68 when he committed suicide.

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” Thompson once said. Until it didn’t.

Jack Kerouac was the key figure in the “Beat Movement.” A draft of his seminal, stream-of-consciousness novel, On The Road, was written in just three weeks and typed on a continuous, one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that Kerouac cut to size and taped together.

It is a fascinating read. But great literature? Maybe not so much.

Kerouac continued to writes books and poetry, but nothing he wrote equaled the impact of On The Road.  How could it?

Drugs were very much part of the scene in On the Road, but Kerouac’s personal drug was alcohol. He died in 1969 at the age of 47, as a result of an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis.

boroughs

“Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction.” – William S. Burroughs

Major writers of the Beat era, all close friends of Kerouac, were Allen Ginsberg (LSD), Ken Kesey (psychedelics), William Boroughs, who was addicted to heroin, and Neal Cassady, who died of a drug overdose. “Whether you sniff it smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction,” Burroughs said.

Other 20th Century writers who experimented with or used drugs: W.H. Auden, Jean Paul Sartre and Philip Dick (amphetamines). “Drug misuse is not a disease, it’s a decision…an error in judgment,” said Dick, who also used marijuana, mescaline, LSD, sodium pentothal. Hubert Selby, was addicted to pain killers and heroin that were first administered after surgery; Stephen King, who managed to kick his addiction to cocaine and other drugs; and Aldous Huxley, mescaline (see Huxley’s The Doors of Perception).

Would Dick have created his fantastic fictional worlds without drugs?  Would Hunter Thompson have been Hunter Thompson? Would any of those writers have achieved what they did?

Neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields asks: “Can the creative product—a song, painting, poem, or book—justify the sacrifice and harm that will accompany conducting the creative pursuit under the influence of drugs? If we accept the use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and alcohol by rock musicians to achieve creative breakthroughs and delight us with their performance, what does that say about us in being willing to accept the destruction of another human being for our entertainment?”

“Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self- respect and everything that goes along with your self esteem,” songwriter/musician Kurt Cobain said.  Cobain struggled with heroin addiction and depression. He committed suicide in 1994, at age 27.

I do not know if this survey will persuade anyone not to use drugs (with the exception, perhaps of marijuana as a reward after a long day of writing). That’s not my intent. But I will reiterate Larry Kahaner’s advice to aspiring writers – all writers, for that matter:  “Write a lot and read a lot. Those are the only habits that work all the time and every time.”

There are no short cuts.

Don’t Drink and Write

Don’t Drink and Write

By Larry Kahaner

This blog is aimed at new writers. If you’re an experienced writer, or an alcoholic, or both, don’t bother reading any further. Well, okay, you can. But what follows probably won’t  resonate with you. You’ll most likely sniff in defiance and pronounce it nonsense. Or, you’ve already handled the situation.

http://moreintelligentlife.com/

image from: Intelligent Life magazine

Many new writers try to emulate  their favorite authors. They somehow think that by using the same pen, the same notebook, following the same schedule and oddball habits (I only write in my pajamas with the cuddly bear on the front) that this will bring them the same success as those they admire. As I’ve said many times, the only habit that aspiring writers should copy from those before them is to sit down and write. Write a lot and read a lot. Those are the only habits that work all the time and every time.

One of my sins is bluntness but I can’t help it. Many times I’m asked during interviews about when I write, how I get my inspiration, where I get my ideas and I try to be polite… I really try… but sometimes I just can’t pull it off. I usually blurt out that these things don’t matter. As gently as I can I note that we all walk differently, we eat differently, we talk differently. It stands to reason that we all write differently so why copy anyone else? I’m usually marked as a nasty individual who offers no help to the nascent scribe. It’s not how I want be remembered.

Which brings us to alcohol.

So many brilliant authors drink too much. Many are functioning alcoholics and this penchant for drinking has led many newbies to believe that drinking is a prerequisite for perfect prose. How can you blame them when well respected authors boast of their alcoholic intake in quotes that we love to put up on our walls?

“Too much champagne is just right.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

Goodreads has 442 quotes about drinking. There’s even a top ten list of 15 great alcoholic writers.

Why do writers drink? That same reason that anyone else drinks. “Boredom, loneliness, habit, hedonism, lack of self-confidence; as stress relief or a short-cut to euphoria; to bury the past, obliterate the present or escape the future,” notes Blake Morrison, writing in the Guardian.  Morrison also points out that in Olivia Laing’s book The Trip to Echo Spring, about six famous alcoholic writers, that there may not be a simple answer as to why many famous writers drink but I believe the above short list takes a strong cut at it.

I’ve been a writer, journalist and published author for many years and I know many writers. Some of them drink a bit more than most, but that may be because they’re my friends. Self-selection and all that. But to a man and woman, they report that alcohol doesn’t help their writing. In fact, it hinders it.

Here’s one comment from a dear friend and prolific book author:

“I feel free and creative when I write in the company of wine. But the next day, usually, my grammar, syntax and coherence of prose look like crap.”

From another, whose non-fiction books are terrific, well-written and well-received. I asked him whether drinking helps his writing and he responded:

“I hate to sound like a prude, but I feel most free and creative when I’ve done a thorough job of reporting and know what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Does alcohol have a place in an author’s arsenal? Certainly, as a relaxer, a way to unwind after a day of hard writing and as social lubrication. It also can offer a short-term creativity kick. Another author friend who writes a blog under the moniker Thriller Guy offers this:

“… say you’ve got a problem that you can’t figure out – your character has been captured by an evil CEO and Our Hero is imprisoned in a laboratory where the resident mad scientist and his minions are threatening to suck the very essence out of his body. (Think Neo in The Matrix) How is Our Hero going to escape? TG can tell you from long experience, if you don’t know how to get your man (or woman) out of this pickle when you head into this scene, the answer is probably not going to just jump into your head. Trying to hammer out a solution to a problem like this can drive you nuts. What you need to do is to stop trying to figure out the answer, and let your subconscious come up with a solution. To do this you need to stop your brain from working so hard, to let the well fill up, by itself. Send the kiddies off to bed (if there are any kiddies) kiss the wife goodnight, (if there is a wife) pour yourself a stiff drink and settle into your chair. Then have a couple of more drinks. You can noodle away at the problem while you’re sitting there, but only in a general way. Drink too much, stagger off to bed, and go to sleep. And if you’re lucky, the next morning, when you go back to work, the answer will pop into your head. Almost unbidden. Ditto if you’re trying to come up with a title, solve a plot problem, searching for a “voice” to tell your story, a structure on which to build your novel. You need to stop trying to solve the problem, and let your writer’s brain solve the conundrum on its own. This is actually one of the few thrilling moments when being a writer seems almost like magic.”

He’s right.

Believe me, I like a martini in the evening. Occasionally, a few more, but I must tell you that of all the professional writers I know, the ones who write drunk do so in spite of their drinking and not because of it. They are functioning alcoholics, or close to the edge of it, who, if they weren’t writers would trudge off to the office every day, slightly hungover and put in a day’s work despite their condition. Think Mad Men. They drink because their body requires it, not because it makes them more creative. In fact, I often wonder how much better the words from Hemingway, Cheever, Poe or London would have been without their booze. We’ll never know.

I’m sorry to burst your romantic bubble but drinking doesn’t help writing. It hurts, and not  just the writing but your life in general. I leave you with this, an excerpt from the Handbook of Medical Psychiatry, 2nd Edition, edited by David P. Moore and James W. Jefferson. Sadly, it describes many famous drinking writers to a ‘T.’

“When alcoholics do drink, most eventually become intoxicated, and it is this recurrent intoxication that eventually brings their lives down in ruins. Friends are lost, health deteriorates, marriages are broken, children are abused, and jobs terminated. Yet despite these consequences the alcoholic continues to drink. Many undergo a ‘change in personality.’ Previously upstanding individuals may find themselves lying, cheating, stealing, and engaging in all manner of deceit to protect or cover up their drinking. Shame and remorse the morning after may be intense; many alcoholics progressively isolate themselves to drink undisturbed. An alcoholic may hole up in a motel for days or a week, drinking continuously. Most alcoholics become more irritable; they have a heightened sensitivity to anything vaguely critical. Many alcoholics appear quite grandiose, yet on closer inspection one sees that their self-esteem has slipped away from them. Most alcoholics also display an alcohol withdrawal syndrome when they either reduce or temporarily cease consumption. Awakening with the ‘shakes’ and with the strong urge for relief drinking is a common occurrence; many alcoholics eventually succumb to the ‘morning drink’ to reduce their withdrawal symptoms.”

Sound like any writing heroes of yours? Yeah, I thought so.

The Secret to Writing That Nobody Tells You

I am reblogging Jane’s post because it’s something that I’ve been harping on for years. Writing is work. You put your ass in the seat and write. Only when you can do this day in and day out can you call yourself a writer. You write when you feel like it and you write when you don’t feel like it – just like everyone else and their job. There are good days and bad days but you still go to work, right?

WORD SAVANT

When I coach people, there is an ugly truth about writing that I often hold back from them. It’s something you can only learn through gut-wrenching, razor’s edge, shard of broken glass experience.

There is no magic to writing, none at all. It’s nothing but grueling

No magic, no easy formula, no genius algorithm. There is no “secret” that is going to make everybody love your work, buy all your books, tell their friends about you, and get stars in their eyes when they hear your name.

It is simply monotonous, repetitive work.

I recently finished the manuscript for my first novel. For eight years I struggled to finish it. And do you know what finally helped me finish it?

Monotonous, repetitive work.

I did it by sitting down (almost) every day and writing a minimum of 500 words.

Some of those days were pretty good days. I would say…

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Don’t Let Writing Keep You From Writing

Don’t Let Writing Keep You From Writing

By Larry Kahaner

Being a novelist is like being an actor or a painter. Sometimes you need a day job to make ends meet until your artistic talents are economically appreciated. The question for writers in particular is: do you write to pay the rent or do you take a day job that’s not writing?deadline

Some say that a non-writing job keeps your mind fresh and available for your novelizing but others (I’m in this camp) say that writing non-fiction keeps your word skills sharp and your writing-mind limber.

Those of you who are familiar with my blog and website, know that I’m a working writer, journalist and author, and that I’m also writing a novel. My website and blog are devoted to the idea that non-fiction writers bring unique and valuable skills to the fiction world.

There are also challenges. For example, this is the first time that I’m writing a book on spec which is an uncomfortable and unprecedented situation for me. I’m almost 70,000 words in (all writers know their word count even if they publicly say they don’t) and I work on my thriller when I’m not making a living by writing non-fiction.

I’m always on the lookout for others, like me, who write for a living and work on their novel when they can fit it in, so I was pleased to come across this blog by Lauren Tharp where she tackles the same issues that confront me and other working writers.

It struck me as comforting, but strangely eerie, that we have many of the same feelings and beliefs about how to handle our writing work lives and our non-worklife writing.

For example, Lauren writes: I have, and will always, put my clients’ needs before my own. Mostly because I like getting paid. I agree. Ya gotta eat and pay the mortgage. I feel lucky to earn my living as a writer and I won’t jeopardize it. However, to make time for my ‘other  work,’ as I call it, I schedule the time. I may work the morning on ‘money work’ (my other pet name) and the afternoon on my other work. Although counter intuitive, I find that when I dispatch my money work, it revs me up for my other work. I also find that time becomes more precious, so instead of spending it on Facebook or some other web-related time-suck, I will dive into my other work. My money work may sometimes creep into my other work time but not the other way.

(As an aside: A few hours ago, I got a call from a friend and editor at a magazine where I once worked who asked if I was available for a six-month assignment. It would be a weekly article of about 500-600 words. I explained that I was working on my novel – he knew that already – but he understood immediately (’cause he’s a working writer) when I told him that this work would only serve to stimulate my fiction writing. So, yes, I welcomed the additional work. Thanks for thinking of me, Jim.)

The other item that Lauren wrote was: For many writers, “mood” dictates whether or not they’ll sit down and write. However, for many successful writers, “mood” needs to either be ignored or be incorporated into their work. I agree here, too. Writers have to do their jobs whether they feel like it or not –  just like everybody else in this world.

These are just two gems from Lauren’s blog. She also quotes other working writers on how they juggle their time write their passion projects. It’s worth a look.

I’d like to add one more of my own findings. Writing for a living compels you to meet deadlines so you learn to write as best as you can in the time allotted. Even if there’s no deadline for your novel, it’s a good trait to know when to stop writing and hand it in. Too many novelists work ad infinitum, trying to eke out perfection, so they never really finish their book.

Lauren ends with this: If you, really, truly, want to write for yourself, nothing, can stop you –  not even writing.

True that.

Why Writers Should Read Crap

Why Writers Should Read Crap

By Larry Kahaner

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Thanks to sblazak.wordpress.com for this headline.

All writers get the same advice. Read the great writers; study the great works. Learn how seasoned, professional and successful authors get the job done. All true, but I maintain that it’s also crucial for writers to read crap to learn what not to do.

How do you know what’s crap? It’s not a book that didn’t sell well, although that sometimes may be a clue. It’s not one that received bad reviews either. Some of the world’s greatest books have garnered negative comments from critics. Crappy writing is like the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on what constitutes pornography. You know it when you see it. And you know it because you’ve mainly been reading good writing.

More concrete indications of bad prose are sections that make you go ‘huh?’ or that make you laugh because they’re so ridiculous even though the author meant it to be serious. It’s prose that’s boring, even if you can’t articulate why your mind is wandering. Crappy writing just doesn’t sound right to your ear.

Other bad writing signs include no variation in sentence length, too much telling instead of showing, overshowing, no drama, no emotion, backstories that are too long, unnecessary detail, and on and on. I’m not talking about mechanical problems with grammar or lapses in POV or tense but simple, bad freakin’ writing.

Here are some examples from real self-published books. I have changed the wording slightly so as not to embarrass the author.

Sample: “We have to move quickly, pal. We already have an elite team on its way to Nigeria to rescue the pilot. But these paratroopers are going to stand out like chocolate chips in vanilla ice cream without some assistance on the ground. I need someone to be there to meet them or they’ll be minced meat.”

What did you learn? It’s trite and boring because the writing is obvious, full of clichés and the ‘chocolate chips?’ Make it stop. Send the elite team? Why would you send the non-elite team? And yes, we do have to move quickly because moving slowly would… well.. you know.

Sample: “Hi, Bob! Sorry, I’m so late! She awkwardly returned the kiss, her kitbag bumping against her knees and her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder.”

What did you learn? First, cut the exclamation points. You’re allowed only a few per book and they should be reserved for “Look out!” like when a rock is falling on a character’s  head. Show me how she ‘awkwardly returned the kiss;’ don’t tell me. Last, who cares about her kitbag hitting her knee or that her laptop bag hanging from one shoulder? (Can a laptop even hang from two shoulders?) What does that sentence add? Mood, ambience, emotion, anything? Nothing! (I used the exclamation point because I felt that I was in danger.)

I was going to offer one more example, but this exercise made me a little sick to my stomach, so I’ll stop here.

Again, why read crap? So you know what not to do. You’re learning from others’ mistakes without people like me making fun of you in this blog. We are all guilty of lapses in writing judgment. I have made the same mistakes that I detailed here (which I seek and destroy in the rewriting process) especially because I come from the non-fiction side of writing books where some of these transgressions – like telling instead of showing – is not only acceptable but encouraged. In fact, one of the tenets of non-fiction writing is “tell people what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you told them.” Do this in fiction and you’re inviting readers to pummel you.

My advice is to read some crap every once in a while but not too much. And don’t pay for it. Please. Read the free samples on Amazon. You only have to read (thankfully) the first few pages to learn their abject lessons.

Why Writing A Novel Is Like The AK-47 Rifle

Why Writing A Novel Is Like The AK-47 Rifle

By Larry Kahaner

ak image

The AK-47 is the most used weapon in the world, but it’s not perfect.

Several years ago I wrote a non-fiction book about the AK-47 rifle. It was not a gun book, per se, but a history about how this ubiquitous weapon changed the world, certainly the world of war. For those of you who never watch television, read the web or see a magazine, the AK-47 is ‘the gun’ that you see everywhere. It’s what we think an automatic weapon should look like with its distinctive banana-shaped magazine (the part that holds bullets). It’s the most popular weapon in the world because it is simple, never jams, it’s cheap, and anyone can use it effectively. It is the choice of terrorists, mercenaries and even government armies. (Click here to watch a book promotion video that I made.)

What does this have to do with writing a novel? I’m getting there.

The inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov – the weapon also goes by his last name – knew that it was not a perfect weapon, that it had flaws but he knew that it could operate underwater or be buried in the ground, dug up a year later, and still work. It’s not a precison, beautifully- constructed weapon like the U.S. M-16 rifle, but it did the job and, unlike the M-16, it didn’t have to be taken apart on a regular basis to be cleaned. In fact, the reason why the AK works so well is because it is not perfect. The parts don’t fit precisely together so dirt and gunk don’t accumulate in the mechanism. It just kicks out the muck and keeps firing.

One of the sayings in Kalashnikov’s Soviet Union was “Perfection is the enemy of good enough,” and I was reminded of this while reading Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s a great read for all artists including writers.

An important point the authors make is that many writers are stopped in their tracks because they’re trying to achieve perfection on the first go-around.

They write:

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept…. For you, the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes, if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further. It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”

Being perfect is a hot button issue for me and I’ve discussed it in previous blogs. One reason for my interest is that I see too many writers not writing because they’re waiting for that perfect moment, that perfect phrase or that perfect muse to enter the room. That’s not how real writing (as opposed to dilettante writing) works. Real writers write and what comes out is never, ever perfect.

It bothers me greatly when I see writers paralyzed by their work, losing confidence, patience and even perspective because they want it to be perfect. Worse yet, not even starting or quitting because they don’t believe it will end up being perfect.

I know that ‘writing prompts’ are really popular these days so here’s one for you. Write something with the understanding that it will not be perfect. Give yourself permission to make  mistakes knowing that you can fix them later.

The freedom is exhilarating and your work will benefit. Without the constraints of perfection, you will see a marked difference in your book. That’s why National Novel Writing Month spells success for many authors. Writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t allow you time to seek perfection, but you do rack up the words for more conscious and thoughtful rewriting later.

Kalashnikov had said that he wanted his weapon to be better designed, but he didn’t have the skills (he was a tinkerer not an engineer) or the know-how. He just made something that worked and put it out for the world to use.

That’s all you really want for your novel. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to work for the reader. Fix the big mistakes, for sure. The smaller ones, too. Make it as good as you can -don’t cheap-out on the rewrites – and then let it fly.

Let readers decide if it’s perfect or not.

Why Do So Many People Write at Starbucks?

By Larry Kahaner

Why do so many people write at Starbucks?

The answer has to do with me going to Nevis.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

View of St. Kitts from Nevis with rainbow bonus.

Let me explain.

Brain researchers don’t quite understand it all, but they’re learning more and more about something called ‘neuroplasticity.’ This is the brain’s ability to change neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, thinking, emotions and, of course, an unfortunate conk on the noggin. These changes in neural pathways and synapses determine, among other things, our creativity.

This means that your brain actually changes its functional structure based on your thoughts, environment and the other items listed above. What does this have to with writing? Simply put, by changing our neural pathways and synapses we can be more creative in our fiction as well as non-fiction writing. One way to do this is through a change in scenery.

I recall many times having trouble figuring out the approach to a feature article I was writing. Getting away from the office, even for a short while, really helped solidify my thoughts. The same went for my non-fiction books. Getting away always worked. A change often led me to ‘aha moments’ and I could see a whole book’s organization and structure in my mind’s eye for the first time.

Dune_Shacks_of_Peaked_Hill_Bars_Historic_District

Dune shack of Cape Cod.

Consider the Dune Shacks of Cape Cod. These ramshackle huts built for washed- up-on-the-shore sailors have offered help to the likes of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollack. Before modern science stepped in we thought the structures’ powers lay in solitude, beauty and the sound and smell of the surf. People used the word inspiration. Sorry. It’s just that it was different – very different – from where the writer/artist usually lived and worked. Not only was the scenery dissimilar to home but the shacks had no running water, electricity or other everyday amenities. How’s that for different? They still don’t offer creature comforts and you can enter into a lottery to try one for yourself.

You’re probably thinking that we writers have always known that a change in environment is good for our writing. Now we know why. The science is solid.

Writers often thrive in artistic and literary retreats. It’s not that the environment is so conducive to writing – although it may have to do with not having to cook your own meals or handling everyday family tasks – but, again, it’s that it’s different. A good pal of mine just returned from such a place where he clocked about 4,000 words a day while in residence. He claims his output was due mainly to being relieved of his daily household chores, but I’m going with the science.

By changing our environment, we change what we see, what we smell, how we feel and what we think. This helps to get us out of our brain ruts which have been worn deep by doing and seeing the same things day in and day out. Scientists now tell us that these ruts are real and not imagined. Leaving these ruts puts us on new paths of thinking and understanding and that’s always good for writers, fiction and non-fiction alike.

I can tell you right now that being on the island of Nevis is helping my ability to churn out new thoughts and ideas, and not just about writing. At the risk of being too obvious, Nevis is very different from where I live outside of Washington, DC. Nevis is lush and warm. It’s a roundish, volcanic island with one extinct cone in the middle, Nevis Peak, which is often shrouded in clouds. Yep; it’s different.

n p[eak

Nevis Peak

But you don’t have to get on an airplane to get the same benefits of being in a different place. It doesn’t take much.

Sometimes I just move my laptop to my dining room table and that helps clear the cobwebs. Other times I sit in Starbucks and enjoy some flashes of writing fervor. It’s not the coffee or the slow internet that wires me for greater word output.  It’s being out of  my everyday office.

Instead of grinding away in the same digs, change your venue. Even small changes in your work environment can move your writing to new places.

What if the US were run like a corporation and a madman was in charge? Check out my latest thriller USA, Inc. now available in eBook and paperback. Money-back guarantee. 

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